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Do women have the right to choose whether gender inflection will be applied to their last name? A passionate discussion is resonating through the Czech Republic, but most politicians and linguists mostly concern themselves with the technical aspects. And the women themselves are kind of pushed aside...

Everything was spurred on by the recent decision of the government, which had, among others, a proposition on the table stating that women should be able to decide as they see fit whether their last name shall contain the suffix –ová or not, as a part of expanded legislation. The government rejected it, citing that the Czech Republic isn't ready for that. But the Pirate Party stepped in right after, saying that they would propose a change at the next vote in the House. And so the option of omitting gender inflection is back in the game.

When debating whether to apply gender inflection or not, we cannot avoid talking about history and how women's last names came to be. It is a tradition in which one takes a male partner's name and says unambiguously to other people: This woman belongs to this man. Simply put, when Marie married mister Novák, she became Nováková - aka Novák's, period. It has been this way for hundreds of years in the Czech lands, and nobody ever bats an eye.

Luxusní vila na prodej Praha
Luxusní vila na prodej Praha, Praha 6

Times have changed

But the times have changed. Women not only gained the right to vote, but they have left behind the role of being "just" a housewife that takes care of the house while the man is off making money. These days it's often the opposite, even - when a child is born, the man stays home on paternity leave, while the woman works on her career. It is not common, but it's definitely not exceptional, in Czech Republic alone there are thousands of these kinds of families.

Women also gained confidence and became independent. They stopped marrying lawyers, professors and doctors, and became lawyers, professors and doctors themselves. Maybe that's why they should be granted the right to freely decide whether they want to be called Nováková, or Novák. Not because they should be demonstrating their independence from men, but maybe just because they like it. Or because they often travel abroad. And, unfortunately, in Britain and the US, women with "ová" in their last names are still viewed as poor women from the East.

(Un)fair exceptions

Regardless, these days, women using uninflected last names aren't an exception even in the Czech Republic. The rules were relaxed when the borders opened and Czech women started marrying not only Czech men, but also foreigners from countries where –ová simply doesn't exist. These days they can keep a neutral form of their last name in certain cases, nobody has anything against it.

Women who are not marrying foreigners or do not have foreign citizenship and want a neutral name in spite of it have found a way too. The only thing they have to do is show up at an office and say, "I am planning to move abroad soon". And the clerks have no other choice but to approve such choice. Since they actually have no way of verifying whether the woman will or will not really live abroad.

A woman has to lie

Isn't it humiliating though? If a woman wants to use a last name without –ová without claiming different citizenship or satisfying one of the other set conditions, she has to lie to the officials. When all it would take would be a small change in the law that would allow women to choose a name according to their own preference. The same way one can decide where to shop or what to name their children.

Linguists have recently been going on about how uninflected last names for women would disrupt the Czech language, people wouldn't be able to form correct Czech sentences and wouldn't know how to apply declension to women's last names in the male form. Many conservative-leaning politicians point to tradition as well, and to how confused people would be, because they simply aren't ready for such a drastic change.

Isn't this discussion completely off topic though? It is concerned with everything except the wishes of the women themselves. No one actually expects that after implementing this "new thing", all women would jog over to the registry office and change their last names en masse. It'd more likely be a minority, because Czechs are overall rather conservative, so they won't let their -ová be taken away.

Czech language would deal with it

Tens of thousands of Czech and foreign women actually already use uninflected last names in the Czech republic normally, so nothing would drastically change. It wouldn't be "out of the blue". So we shouldn't be underestimating Czech language and Czech people, who can already deal with way more complicated language conundrums coming in from abroad. After all, do we question that we normally use foreign words like "workflow", "fashion week", "outdoor gear" or even just "scrolling" down one's Facebook timeline? Czech simply absorbed it without anyone ordering or forbidding it.

And maybe we should trust people more and think less about how our national traditions would fall apart and people would stop understanding each other. Maybe we should stop attributing unnecessary implications to one's individual desire to use a last name without „-ová“, like extreme feminism or it being just a fashion craze. When registered partnership for homosexuals was going into practice some years ago, many were afraid that it was the end of society. And today nobody even bats an eye. And in this case only "stupid" names are concerned.

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David Budai
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